How Many Credits Should an Undergraduate Take?
Low completion rates and increased time to degree at U.S. colleges are a widespread concern for policymakers and academic leaders. Many ‘full time’ undergraduates currently enroll at 12 credits per semester despite the fact that a bachelor’s degree cannot be completed within 4 years at that credit-load. The academic momentum perspective holds that if, at the beginning of their first year in college, undergraduates attempted more course credits per semester, then overall graduation rates could rise. Using nationally-representative data and propensity-score matching methods to reduce selection bias, we find that academically and socially similar students who initially attempt 15 rather than 12 credits do graduate at significantly higher rates within 6 years of initial enrollment. We also find that students who increase their credit load from below fifteen to fifteen or more credits in their second semester are more likely to complete a degree within 6 years than similar students who stay below this threshold. Our evidence suggests that stressing a norm that full time enrollment should be 15 credits per semester would improve graduation rates for most kinds of students. However, an important caveat is that those undergraduates whose paid work exceeds 30 h per week do not appear to benefit from taking a higher course load.
KeywordsAcademic momentum Credit load College completion Propensity score matching
- Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the tool box. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Adelman, C. (2004). Principal indicators of student academic histories in postsecondary education, 1972–2000. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Adelman, C. (2006). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(3), 297–308.Google Scholar
- Attewell, P., & Jang, S. H. (2013). Summer coursework and completing college. Research in Higher Education Journal, 20(1), 117–141.Google Scholar
- Aud, S., Hussar, W., Johnson, F., Kena, G., Roth, E., Manning, E., et al. (2012). The condition of education 2012 (NCES 2012-045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Inequality in postsecondary education. In G. J. Duncan & R. J. Murname (Eds.), Whither opportunity? (pp. 117–132). New York: Russel Sage.Google Scholar
- Baum, S., Dynarski, S., Hauptman, A., Long, B. T., McPherson, M., Scott-Clayton, J., & Turner, S. (2011). Letter to the president of the college board. Retrieved from http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/advocacy/homeorg/advocacy-pell-grant-reform-letter.pdf.
- Becker, S. O., & Caliendo, M. (2007). Mhbounds—sensitivity analysis for average treatment effects. IZA Discussion Papers, No. 2542. Retrieved from http://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/33969/1/541711334.pdf.
- Bloom, D., & Sommo, C. (2005). Building learning communities: Early results from the opening doors demonstration at Kingsborough Community College. New York: MDRC.Google Scholar
- Bound, J., Lovenheim, M. F., & Turner, S. (2012). Increasing time to baccalaureate degree in the United States. Education, 7(4), 375–424.Google Scholar
- Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York: Greenwood.Google Scholar
- Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, C. (1977). Reproduction: In education, culture, and society. London: Sage.Google Scholar
- Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Bowen, W. G., Chingos, M. M., & McPherson, M. S. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Cataldi, E. F., Green, C., Henke, R., Lew, T., Woo, J., Shepherd, B., et al. (2011). 2008–09 baccalaureate and beyond longitudinal study (B&B:08/09) first look (NCES Report 2011-236). Washington DC: US Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Cohodes, S., & Goodman, J. (2012). First degree earns: The impact of college quality on college completion rates (HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP12-033), Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.Google Scholar
- College Board. (2008). Coming to our senses: Education and the American future. New York: College Board.Google Scholar
- Complete College America. (2013). The power of 15 credits: Enrollment intensity and postsecondary student achievement. Washington, D.C.: Complete College America. Retrieved from http://www.completecollege.org/docs/CCA%20Intensity%20Brief-April3.pdf.
- Goldrick-Rab, S. (2007). Promoting academic momentum at community colleges: Challenges and opportunities (CCRC Working Paper No.5). New York: Community College Research Center.Google Scholar
- Guo, S., & Fraser, M. W. (2010). Propensity score analysis: Statistical methods and applications. Los Angeles: Sage.Google Scholar
- Hussar, W. J., & Bailey, T. M. (2013). Projections of education statistics to 2022 (NCES 2014-051). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Kelly, A. P., & Schneider, M. (2012). Getting to graduation: The completion agenda in higher education. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
- Leuven, E., & Sianesi, B. (2003). PSMATCH2: Stata module to perform full Mahalanobis and propensity score matching, common support graphing, and covariate imbalance testing, version 1.2.3. Retrieved from http://ideas.repec.org/c/boc/bocode/s432001.html.
- McCormick, A., & Horn, L. J. (1996). A descriptive summary of 1992–93 bachelor’s degree recipients: 1 year later, with an essay on time to degree (NCES Report 96-158). Washington DC: US Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Nannicini, T. (2007). Simulation-based sensitivity analysis for matching estimators. Stata Journal, 7(3), 334.Google Scholar
- National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). 2004/2009 Beginning postsecondary students longitudinal study restricted-use data file (NCES No. 2011244). Washington, DC: Institute for Education Sciences, Department of Education.Google Scholar
- National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). 2004/2009 Beginning postsecondary students longitudinal study restricted-use transcript data files and documentation (NCES 2012243). Washington, D.C: National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education.Google Scholar
- Rosenbaum, P. R., & Rubin, D. B. (1983b). Assessing the sensitivity to an unobserved binary covariate in an observational study with binary outcome. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series B (Methodological), 45, 212–218.Google Scholar
- Rosenbaum, P. R., & Rubin, D. B. (1985). Constructing a control group using multivariate matched sampling methods that incorporate the propensity score. The American Statistician, 39(1), 33–38.Google Scholar
- US Department of Education. (2006). A test of leadership: charting the future of U.S. higher education. Washington DC: US Department of Education.Google Scholar